49ers LB Fred Warner to be among NFL’s elite in 2020?

Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

49ers linebacker Fred Warner took a massive stride his second year in the league in 2019, and there are reasons to believe he’ll be an NFL elite this year.

It’s a good thing the San Francisco 49ers decided to use a Round 3 NFL Draft pick on former BYU linebacker Fred Warner back in 2018. After all, the Niners’ first-round linebacker pick from the previous year, Reuben Foster, was toeing a dangerous line on the roster.

Foster’s eventual waiving in November of that year opened up the door for Warner to become a potential cornerstone piece for head coach Kyle Shanahan’s defense.

And Warner certainly seized it, earning starting MIKE duties right away and being responsible for calling the defensive plays in the huddle.

Warner led the team in tackles, both in 2018 and 2019. Yet last year showed all the indications of Warner being a potential start in the league, perhaps someone who goes on to have a perennial Pro Bowl-caliber résumé when he eventually calls it a career.

Fred Warner Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/6/2020.

The leap between years one and two put Warner onto the national spotlight. ESPN recently ranked him the No. 10 on the list of top-10 linebackers heading into 2020, while the NFL 100 series pegged him as the No. 70 overall player entering this season:

Quite some noteworthy accolades.

Warner displayed not only excellent pass-coverage skills, but he added the ability to generate turnovers as well, picking up an interception and forcing three fumbles, too.

Yet there are ways in which he could get even better in 2020, and Niner Noise’s annual “Who Is?” series details how.

Why Fred Warner improves with 49ers in 2020

Warner’s 66.9 overall regular-season Pro Football Focus grade suggests there’s room for improvement, and it’s pretty clear exactly where this needs to happen. His 76.4 pass-coverage grade is exceptional, which is one of the reasons why San Francisco drafted him in the first place, and that won’t go unnoticed anytime soon.

Yet Warner posted a lowly 46.8 run-defense grade, largely marred by some of his still-developing elements with his tackling.

In total last year, Warner missed a team-high 20 tackles which also tied for fourth most among all defenders in the league last season. It’s not ideal, and Warner also endured some tackling issues early in his career.

But the good news is this is a coachable technique. Also, having the benefit of returning linebackers Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw should give Warner a deeper understanding of his teammates’ abilities and whereabouts, allowing him to take better angles and set himself up for the tackle much more efficiently.

Why Fred Warner regresses with 49ers in 2020

There aren’t too many reasons why one would believe Warner goes through any sort of regression, particularly anything substantial. It’s likely he’ll be among the team leaders in tackles again this season, or at least towards the very top. And one shouldn’t expect a serious drop in coverage skills either.

The missed tackles and so-so run-stopping efforts could fail to improve, however, meaning opponents may be more inclined to run straight at Warner instead of trying to get around him. Considering San Francisco’s defensive line switch to a wide-9 format, those interior rush lanes are likely to be open again, meaning Warner’s responsibility to plug gaps at the second level won’t diminish.

If it’s still a weakness and is subsequently exploited, one could see a dip in Warner’s abilities here.

Still, Warner remains a key part to the Niners defense, and there’s little reason to assume he winds up having any sort of significant drop.

Projected role with 49ers

Once again, Warner will be tasked with captaining San Francisco’s defense.

As the MIKE linebacker, even though the Niners’ current defensive alignment has the three backers in interchangeable roles, Warner will still be asked to call the defensive plays and audibles within the huddle. One of his best attributes, aside from bringing the much-needed energy from this position, is to constantly be around the ball.

That won’t change this season, and one could easily expect Warner to see even more uptick in those forced fumbles and potential interceptions. He displayed those traits already, and now it’s time to hone them even further.

Warner earned his way onto the 2019 Pro Bowl alternate list, but it seems as if the rest of the league is taking notice of what he’s been capable of doing at a high level.

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Should Warner put together yet another season reflective of last year, it wouldn’t be shocking at all to see his tally chart include his first Pro Bowl nod once 2020 is in the books.